Feeding the Homemade Diet
Home-cooked meal plans for your cat may spell “love” — but not necessarily good nutrition. Here’s why nutrient imbalances and other dietary problems abound.
Ahome-cooked diet for your pet sounds great, and it certainly appeals to the emotions,” says Cailin Heinze, MS, VMD, DACVN. “But realistically, the vast majority of these diets I see cats being fed are not nutritionally balanced because just using whole foods that are typically consumed by humans is usually not enough to balance a cat’s diet.”
And though it might seem that a pet multi-vitamin supplement could pick up where the diet leaves off, most pet supplements are specifically designed to be provided on top of a commercial diet that already has minimum nutrient levels, explains Dr. Heinze. “Unfortunately, they may not contain the nutrient levels needed to fill in the gaps between typical foods people eat and a cat’s nutrient requirements.”
What motivates some to take on the task of creating a home-cooked diet for their cat is being advised by a friend do it, reading a convincing article, wanting to please a finicky cat’s taste buds or an attempt to address specific health issues such as a sensitive gut or diabetes.
What makes them risky
Veterinary nutritionists — who have a lot of experience with home-cooked diets — will alert their clients of the many risks as well as potential benefits in taking on the preparation of a home-cooked diet, most notably finding and sticking to the right balance of nutritious food ingredients with appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals.
There’s also the very real risk of harmful bacteria in the food if you venture further into raw diet territory. (See sidebar on page 5.)
The risks loom particularly large in situations where an individual prepares a home-cooked diet for their cat without appropriate input from a qualified veterinary nutritionist. What began as a doting enterprise in an effort to provide the best possible nutrition for your cat can prove deadly without the proper professional input.
Dr. Heinze has seen the unfortunate results — kittens with fractures because of poor bone development resulting from nutrient deficiencies, as well as cats and kittens suffering from malnutrition in general, and various other related health conditions. Perhaps one of the saddest situations was finding out that one of the two kittens scheduled for a visit to her office for nutritional counseling never made it, dying of malnutrition before reaching her.
Cats have very specific needs
Why is coming up with the appropriate nutritional balance in a diet for your cat so tricky? One reason is that a cat’s nutrient needs are quite different from a dog’s or a human’s. For instance, dogs and humans can’t get vitamin A from plant foods. It’s also about the need for crucial ingredients such as vitamin D, calcium, taurine and others — and not just the ingredients themselves, but also the proportion of those ingredients in relation to each other.
Add to that the variants of your cat’s particular needs — ranging from age, weight and activity level to individual health issues — that would require modification of his diet, and you have potential for causing significant problems.
“I very rarely see a home-cooked diet being fed that really fills in all the gaps, unless it was designed by one of my colleagues [in the American College of Veterinary Nutrition],” says Dr. Heinze. “It’s a huge problem because the typical diet for cats as prepared at home is mostly meat and maybe a small amount of fruit and vegetables, but that’s never enough.
“Rotating the types of meat or adding in a vegetable doesn’t make it any better, and the recipes that are available online and in print are almost never nutritionally balanced,” she adds. She notes, too, that she has analyzed many of these widely available recipes, and that there are also several published papers that examined them — and most are not even close to nutritionally balanced. The notion of your cat springing to a healthier life from a diet inspired by what he would eat in the wild is appealing — but often ill-founded.
“The challenge is that all of the normal places people would seek information on diets or recipes — magazines, cat cookbooks or the Internet — very frequently contain inadequate information when it comes to cooking for cats,” stresses Dr. Heinze. “It can be hard to determine whether the person writing the recipe or weighing in on it is someone who is actually an expert on cats and cat health and nutrition, or to gauge whether the recipe is a good one or not. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a nutritionally balanced recipe in any books that I’ve read. I’ve gone to pet stores and book stores, and the recipes are invariably lacking in essential nutrients, but may imply that they are balanced by using phrases like ‘veterinary approved.’”
However, if cooking for your cat is something that you really want to do, and do correctly, there are people available to help. You can schedule an appointment with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to speak directly about your cat, which is particularly important for pets with health issues (see www.acvn.org to find one near you or one that will work with you or your cat’s veterinarian remotely).
And for healthy cats, you could also utilize a service called Balance IT (www.balanceit.com). This is a rare example of a website that is owned by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, providing an option for getting simple recipes that are nutritionally balanced.
Finicky habits may motivate
It’s not uncommon for cat owners to try to please their pet’s discerning taste buds with a variety of food choices — brands, flavors, and, finally, home-cooked meals. But one thing to remember: Besides the likelihood that your cat will no longer tolerate the favorite food you just stocked up on or cooked up a batch of, is that cats develop a texture preference for food as young kittens. So if your cat prefers dry food and is reluctant to eat canned, you are not likely to get him to eat a home-cooked diet, either. It simply will not be what your cat regards as palatable food.
But for the finicky cat that can be swayed by a home-cooked diet, it’s important to keep in mind that there is a complicated balancing act involved, says Dr. Heinze. Cooking for your pet is more of a science than an art; it is about the cat’s specific needs. A good recipe for a cat likely includes amounts of ingredients in grams, may not allow for ingredient “swaps,” and will include supplemental vitamins and minerals.
Changing the recipe by leaving out or substituting an ingredient could have dramatic effects on the nutrient profile of the diet. So, even if you start out with a good recipe, your cat may not get all the nutrients that he needs if you don’t follow it exactly.
Reevaluate diets each year
Nutritional requirements and your cat’s health also change over time, so the “perfect” recipe that you found three years ago may not be such a good fit for your cat now. Dr. Heinze recommends that diet recipes be re-evaluated yearly to make sure that they are up-to-date with the most recent nutrition knowledge and that they are still a good fit for the cat that they are intended to feed.
Meeting with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist may seem like an extreme step, but think about it from the human side. If you or a family member needed a special diet, your doctor would likely send you to meet with a registered dietician to help create a diet plan to keep you or your family member healthy. Meeting with a veterinary nutritionist is very similar. You can find a veterinarian with board certification in nutrition by visiting www.acvn.org.
Understanding the Raw Food Diet — And Why It’s Frequently a Raw Deal
Though nature might dictate a raw diet for a lion who needs to stay sleek and sure while racing the Serengeti in search of prey, it’s not a fit for your dumpling of a cat, curled up luxuriously in his (your) favorite armchair. Yes, your cat still possesses the basic GI tract of the big cats on his ancestral tree, but he doesn’t have to live with raw food’s very real risk of bacterial contamination. This is an especially grave risk for compromised cats, such as those that are immunosuppressed, pregnant, frail due to advancing age, and so on. Even healthy cats can get seriously sick from harmful bacteria in raw food.
“Raw meat is contaminated until proven otherwise: This is the best way to look at it,” says Dr. Heinze. According to surveys conducted by Consumer Reports and other organizations, potentially harmful bacteria are present in most meats purchased in grocery stores, and the only way to limit the risk of illness is to cook the meat. And that is what you do for yourself to stay safe, so it stands to reason that you would do the same for your cat.
But the whole point of a raw-food diet is that it is not cooked, meaning the risk remains. Most commercial raw diets are purchased either frozen or freeze-dried, but neither of these processes reliably kills bacteria. Newer methods — such as high pressure pasteurization (HPP) — are also being used for commercial raw diets, but it is still unclear whether this processing is equivalent to cooking in terms of reducing bacterial loads. There’s some evidence that HPP may not eliminate bacterial contamination, as a number of these products have been recalled due to testing positive for bacteria that can make people and pets sick. The only methods that have been proven to thoroughly destroy bacteria thus far are irradiation and cooking to a proper temperature for that type of meat.
Bacterial contamination aside, ensuring that your cat is also getting enough of all essential nutrients can also potentially be a problem. “I’ve definitely seen some commercial raw products that had labeling violations (meaning the label didn’t meet current regulations) and nutrient levels that didn’t meet current nutritional guidelines or otherwise didn’t make sense with other information provided on the food. Some raw diets do not use concentrated supplements and rely only on whole foods to meet nutrient requirements and this can increase the risk of deficiencies of nutrients that may be in lower levels in the main ingredients,” explains Dr. Heinze.
Many pet owners say that what attracts them to raw-food diets is how great they make their cat look with its glossy coat and small stools, but that gloss is typically due to the high fat content and the small stools due to high digestibility — both properties of which can be duplicated in a properly cooked diet as well, says Dr. Heinze. What should perhaps instead catch the consumer’s eye is raw food’s reported potential for gastrointestinal disease, blood infections, and even death from pathogenic bacteria, explains Dr. Heinze.
In an article by Tufts Veterinary Nutritionist Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN and colleagues in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, a number of studies are cited pointing to harmful bacterial contamination of raw food diets fed to pets. Some of the studies found contamination of salmonella of up to 48 percent in commercial raw meat-based diets, and eight out of 10 exclusively home-based raw diets had salmonella. This shouldn’t be too surprising because it is estimated that up to 44 percent of chicken bought at various retailers in North America are found to be contaminated with the harmful bacteria.
Bacteria that have been identified in raw meat-based diets include E. coli, Clostridium, Campylobacter jejun, Toxoplasma gondii and Echinococcus multilocularis. Adding to the concern is that harmful bacteria in a pet’s food can pose a risk to the humans who prepare the pet’s meals, particularly if their health is
compromised in any way. And though some raw meat-based diet manufacturers are now using high-pressure pasteurization to reduce pathogens in commercial food, it does not completely eliminate them.
A study by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) ending in July of 2012, which found that of 196 raw pet food samples, 32 were positive for L. monocytogenes and 15 were positive for Salmonella, prompted a warning. The CVM warned that this contamination was more common in raw food than in regular commercial pet food, and that it not only posed a health hazard to pets but also to the people who served the food if they did not wash their hands properly after handling it.
These health risks are particularly serious for the elderly, infants, pregnant women and their fetuses, and individuals with compromised immune systems. Infections can even be passed on in everyday interactions between you and your cat. Because of the real risks, the CVM states, “To prevent infecting yourself or other people in your household with Salmonella and L. monocytogenes, it’s best if you don’t feed your pet a raw diet.”